THDL Bibliographies > Tibetan Deity Cults Bibliography > A Review of Yael Bentor's "Consecration of Images and Stūpas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism"

A Review of Yael Bentor's "Consecration of Images and Stūpas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism"
by Christopher Bell (08-12-2004)

Yael Bentor provides a wealth of information on Tibetan consecration rituals as well as related rituals in her book Consecration of Images and Stupas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. While the very specific nature of her work lacks the universal appeal of Beyer’s seminal treatment, Bentor nonetheless contributes greatly to our understanding of consecration rituals in Tibetan Buddhism. Through this examination of consecration, she explores related ritual ceremonies such as sadhana, initiation, and offering practices. Bentor’s view on the study of Tibetan ritual is akin to Stephan Beyer’s: “the study of ritual texts and performances will shed light not only on one of the main preoccupation [sic] of the majority of monks, but also on their preconceptions” (Bentor xviii). However, as this statement suggests, Bentor’s focus in this work is more monastic in nature, with less attention given to the perceptions of the laity. This limited focus is acceptable within the framework of Bentor’s book because her attention is solely directed at a monastic ritual and tradition. This limitation ultimately works in her favor and allows for the extensive detail her book provides.

Bentor’s goal in this book is to translate and analyze a particular consecration manual and the accompanying ritual of the Gelukpa practice. She presents a study of “the Indo-Tibetan ritual for consecrating images, stupas, books and temples” (Bentor xvii). Her reason for translating this particular manual is that it is “used in quite a number of extensive consecrations performed by members of the Dge-lugs-pa sect nowadays” (Bentor 67). Through this examination she also explores other rituals. This is a direction seldom tread in Tibetan Buddhist Studies, as Bentor asserts:

The great majority of studies on Tibetan Buddhism focus on scholastic and philosophical aspects. Yet, the greatest Tibetan intellectuals today, as in the past, engage themselves not only in Buddhist philosophy, but in ritual performances as well…If the tradition itself does not divide philosophy from ritual, there is no justification for the fact that ritual is so often belittled or ignored by scholars of Tibetan Buddhism. (xix)

With this understanding in mind, it is important to now examine the content and details of Bentor’s book and the material she translates.

Bentor begins her analysis with a detailed introduction that examines consecration rituals in Tibetan Buddhism in order to provide a context within which her translation and analysis can be couched. As she explains, “the types of religious objects that receive consecration are the most revered Buddhist objects of devotion that are considered to be receptacles of the body, speech and mind of the Buddha” (Bentor xx). Indeed, the main part of her book “focuses on the performance of the consecration of Bodhanath Stupa in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, by Dga’-ldan-chos-‘phel-gling monastery in 1988 according to the manual composed by Khri-byang Rin-po-che, the Junior Tutor of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai-Lama. This manual is the one most commonly used for extensive consecrations nowadays by members of the Dge-lugs-pa school” (Bentor xxii). Bentor distinguishes ritual into two key motivations: performance for the sake of one’s self and performance for the sake of others. Consecration ceremonies involve the latter motivation.

In her introduction, Bentor also provides several textual definitions of consecration, one of which being: “Consecration is purifying and generating the dam-tshig sems-dpa’ with the purpose that the ye-shes sems-dpa’ would abide there for a long time” (10). The ye-shes sems dpa’ is a mysterious and still little known concept in Tibetan tantric practice. What Bentor explains about the ye-shes sems-dpa’ is that it is a force that pervades the entire universe but is also similar to the yi-dam—the tutelary deity of the practitioner—which can take the visualized form of the dam-tshig sems-dpa’. During consecration rituals, the ye-shes sems-dpa’ is absorbed into a receptacle for consecration and aligned with the dam-tshig sems-dpa’ into a non-dual nature. This seeming paradox of localizing a universal force is done for the benefit of all beings, that the consecrated receptacle, now divinely imbued, will empower and enrich its surroundings and devotees until the end of samsara.

Beyond these explanations, Bentor’s introduction actually begins with an examination of sadhana practice and its intimate ties with consecration. Sadhana “is the means provided by the tantra for realizing the non-dual nature of all things” (Bentor 3). For its purposes with consecration, sadhana is the “transformation of the practitioner’s body, speech and mind (lus ngag yid) into enlightened body, speech and mind (sku gsung thugs) of a chosen Buddha (yi-dam)” (Bentor 1). A sadhana process of particular importance to consecration is the fourfold generation (bskyed-pa) ritual, which involves the following:

  1. Generation of the dam-tshig sems-dpa’ (samayasattva).
  2. Blessing of the sense-bases (skye-mched, ayatana)
  3. Invitation of the ye-shes sems-dpa’ (jnanasattva) and its merging with the dam-tshig sems-dpa’.
  4. Sealing the mergence through self-initiation. (Bentor 2)

This fourfold generation process breaks down ordinary reality and builds up in its place an exalted reality. Bentor explains that in ritual process there are “three dimensions of reality: the ordinary, exalted and actual” (3). Through the sadhana practice, the ordinary and actual worlds merge within the practitioner and activate the exalted reality. “The merging into one unity designated ‘one taste’ (ro-gcig) or non-dual (gnyis-su med-pa) demonstrates the identity of the ordinary reality of the samsaric world with the actual reality of the nirvanic world. The merger takes place on the intermediate dimension of the exalted reality, the dimension which enables such a conversion” (Bentor 3). Using diagrams, Bentor illustrates how this sadhana practice frames the consecration ritual proper, which frames ancillary ritual practices. What exists in the consecration practice due to these integral influences are the following core components:

  1. Visualizing the receptacle away (mi dmigs-pa); always performed in conjunction with meditation on emptiness.
  2. The fourfold generation, culminating in the merging of the ye-shes sems-dpa’ and the dam-tshig sems-dpa’ into non-duality (dam ye gnyis-su med-pa) and the sealing of this merger (rgyas gdab).
  3. Transformation of the receptacle back into its conventional appearance of an image, stupa, book, etc. (rten bsgyur).
  4. Requesting the ye-shes sems-dpa’ to remain in the receptacle as long as samsara lasts (brtan-bzhugs). (Bentor 5)

At the conclusion of this complex process, due to its sadhana elements, the “receptacle is no longer a conglomeration of profane substances, but an embodiment of the yi-dam which has taken the original form or appearance of that receptacle” (Bentor # Therefore, consecration at its heart is a “process of the localization of the omnipresent ‘divine power’ for the sake of those who do not realize its true nature” (Bentor 18). Consecration confines this power into certain identifiable locations for the Tibetan Buddhist community.

The remainder of Bentor’s introduction consists of important information on initiations, which are conferred on disciples by their gurus for certain practices. Other concepts explored are the purification of the lha—synonymous with the ye-shes sems-dpa’—and various scholastic traditions and disputes. This latter examination is quite intriguing, as Bentor provides various scholarly opinions on certain difficult ritual issues and presents opposing voices. Two such voices are Tibetan scholars Bentor often cites, Brag-phug Dge-bshes and Sde-srid Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho. Another informative section of her introduction is on Consecration Literature as a whole, and the various traditions with which it is associated. Bentor explains that currently newer manuals are used and that variations are both unavoidable and under some circumstances even allowed—usually by the authority of high or incarnate lamas. Innovation is not unheard of in consecration rituals, and high lamas are known to improvise and focus on their favorite mantras or teachings during actual ceremonies.

Not unlike Beyer, Bentor begins her book from a very broad vantage and through the course of her introduction contracts her focus until she gets to the actual attention of her book, the consecration manual she is translating and analyzing. The full title of this manual is “Dgon-gnas Stag-brag Bsam-gtan-gling-du rab-tu gnas-pa’i cho-ga dge-legs rgya-mtsho’i char-‘bebs dang/ rab-gnas rta-thog-ma/ arga’i cho-ga bcas dpal-ldan Smad-rgyud-pa’i phyag-bzhes ltar mdzad rgyun nag-‘gros-su bkod-pa,” which Bentor translates as “The Consecration Ritual, [called] ‘Immense Downpour of Virtue and Goodness’ of the monastery Stag-brag Bsam-gtan-gling, together with a short consecration [called] Rta-thog-ma, and an arga ritual according to the ritual practice of the glorious Lower Tantric College (Smad-rgyud), a sequence of actions written as it should be performed” (66). This manual was composed by Khri-byang Blo-bzang-ye-shes-bstan-‘dzin-rgya-mtsho (1901-1981), the Junior Tutor of H. H. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Bentor expands on her translation with added expositions and details culled from her personal experiences, having observed the performance of this (annual) consecration ritual in the fall of 1988 at the Dga’-ldan Chos-‘phel-gling monastery in Bodhanath, Nepal. Bentor’s introduction concludes with a brief examination of the various ritual roles—those who actively perform the ritual including the ritual master, chant leader, ritual helper, and players of the musical instruments—as well as the setting of the ritual, which is primarily performed in the assembly hall of the monastery.

Beyond this explicit introduction, the rest of Bentor’s book is the actual translation and analysis of the Consecration Manual. The manual begins with the Preparatory rituals, the actions the monks take in preparing the ritual accoutrements and the objects to be used. At one stage of the ritual, since it is the Bodhanath Stupa being consecrated—a receptacle not possible to transport into the monastic assembly hall—a ritual act is performed whereby monks take a mirror to the stupa, and through various ceremonial actions they capture the dam-tshig sems-dpa’ of the stupa in the mirror. This mirror is then treated as the receptacle in the monastery for the remainder of the ritual process. This particular ritual process will last three days, and once the preparations are complete a generation process is performed whereby the lha is generated out of emptiness. The remainder of the first day preparatory actions include consecrating the Victorious Vase and the Vase of Action, Declaring the rite and purpose—which begins the actual consecration—, offering the mandal—which contrasts with the mandala (see Bentor 138)—, performing water offerings and the offering bath, inviting the lha to return the next day, and performing the concluding rituals. At the day’s end the ritual helper prepares the assembly hall for the next day of performance.

These various ritual sequences are characterized by Sanskrit chants, Tibetan praises and visualizations, and the performance of mudras and various other actions by the ritual role-players. Music is also a key element in these ritual performances and parallels the specific moods of each ritual action. The second day consists of the main part of the ritual and includes many of the rituals, both primary and ancillary, that were performed in preparation; however, minor variations are noticeable. It is this day of ritual that we see the absorption of the ye-shes sems dpa' into the dam-tshig sems-dpa’, which involves a complex but nonetheless short fourfold process. Bentor makes it a point to examine how most of the climactic moments in this ritual are surprisingly short. The ritual ends with fire offerings, a feast to share food once it has been blessed by the lha, and a request to the lha to remain in the receptacle. This request is the final among the five main steps of consecration: “visualizing the receptacle as Emptiness, generating it as the dam-tshig sems-dpa’, invitation and absorption of the ye-shes sems-dpa’, their transformation into the appearance of the receptacle, and requesting them to firmly remain” (Bentor 315). Additional rituals follow this process until the end.

This translation is aided by vivid expositions on the various ritual actions and objects involved. Bentor provides both introductory remarks to every major ritual concept and performance and peppers her translation with footnotes that illuminate certain processes and discuss their origins. Like Beyer, she also elaborates on the Indian origins of certain ritual actions. Of particular interest is the fire offerings and their connections with the ancient Vedic fire cults of Agni. She finishes the text with its concluding rituals, which occur on the third and final day. This shorter ritual process also includes rituals from the previous two days along with its own variations. The last obligations of the monks performing this consecration ritual are performing the propitiation ritual, commanding the patrons to make offerings to the newly consecrated receptacle, and the final rituals of praise. Having translated and analyzed this consecration manual and contrasted it with other such works and concepts, Bentor provides this overall assessment: “Khri-byang Rin-po-che’s consecration manual, in common with many other such manuals, does not represent a unified theoretical standpoint on offerings. It draws from a great variety of Indian and Tibetan works which hold different positions and are not always homogeneous themselves. Juxtaposition of different ideas is quite common in the Tibetan ritual literature” (195).

Throughout her book, Bentor explores several intriguing concepts and even paradoxes. Two consistent motifs throughout her examination is the importance of the Buddha as an emanation being and its connections with the dual elements ostensible in this ritual, Mahayana and Tantra. During this ritual ceremony, “the transformation of the receptacle at the later part of the consecration is regarded as parallel to the emanation of a Buddha in the samsaric world” (Bentor 5). This isn’t simply a parallel, however, as the “receptacle actually acts as an emanation body of the Buddha” (Bentor 20). This correlation is broadened during the ritual as “the Buddha is invited to enter the receptacle in the same way that, he periodically enters Queen Maya’s womb in order to be born in the world” (Bentor 316). As Bentor explains, “general Mahayana notions play the decisive role here” (316). Mahayana and Madyamika notions continue to act underneath the tantric motivations of the consecration rituals as well as its ancillary rites. Such a dual use of Buddhist concepts permeates this ritual, especially the issue of the two truths, conventional and ultimate. The application of this Madyamika concept is brought in to solve a seeming contradiction.

This contradiction, which for the purposes of this review will be called the “paradox of purpose,” is a major issue for Bentor. The paradox of purpose is rooted in the seeming attempt of this consecration ritual to localize what cannot be localized, to consecrate that which does not need to be consecrated, referring to the ye-shes sems-dpa’ and the divine power of the Buddha. As Bentor explains, “The paradox of inviting the ye-shes sems-dpa’, which is omnipresent without ever being established, is dealt with in a number of consecration works” (14). She elaborates: “The notion of establishing a Buddha in a receptacle exists only in relative truth. In ultimate truth, consecration is an impossibility. The theory of the two truths is applied here in order to harmonize ritual practice with certain theoretical positions” (Bentor 15). So Madyamika philosophy superimposes Vajrayana ritual in order to correct this seeming paradox. The ultimate intention then of this consecration ritual and of rituals in general is merit-making. “The purpose of a consecration is not the establishing of the ye-shes sems-dpa’ in a receptacle, but accumulation of merit of the patron (Samvarodaya) and development of religious realization by the beginners” (Bentor 16). Conventional truth, however, is important and a required stepping stone in order to get to ultimate truth. Bentor concludes on this intriguing concept: “the application of the theory of the two truths not only serves to solve the apparent contradiction between the main purpose of consecration and the true nature of reality, it effectively underlines the need for performing consecrations” (18-19). Various chants and praises throughout the ritual manual illustrate this concept vividly.

Other minor interesting motifs include cross-cultural references that Bentor makes concerning Tibetan ritual. Aside from explorations of Indian origins, she also discusses various ritual parallels found in other Buddhist countries and other religious practices. As previously explained, other rituals are also examined that may have been autonomous rituals in the past but which have now taken on an ancillary and dependent existence within the broader ritual scheme; rituals such as ‘the ritual of opening the eye’ (Bentor 33) and ‘the enthronement offerings (mnga’-dbul)’ (Bentor 39) fall along this line. One final intrigue of the ritual process in general, which has been explored in both Beyer and Bentor, is the concern for neutralizing redundancy or deficiency in the ritual. If the ritual is not performed perfectly it will fail and produce negative outcomes, so various mantras—the hundred syllable mantra, for instance—are recited and offerings made to neutralize any potential errors that occur during the ritual process. The propitiation ritual that is part of the concluding ceremony of the consecration exists exclusively for this purpose.

Bentor’s methodology is basic but appropriate. It is also properly examined and does not include inappropriate portions, unlike Beyer. Bentor explains the impetus behind her approach well:

For the study of a ritual, which is at least in part based on a textual tradition spanning more than a thousand years, a thorough textual analysis must be presumed. Further, organized monastic rituals are based primarily on textual material. At the same time, rituals are meant to be performed. Thus a philological approach cannot by itself pretend to represent a ritual within a larger range of religious ideas and practices. On the other hand, without being first familiarized with the texts used, it would be nearly impossible to follow the elaborate ritual steps and procedures of the performance itself. Therefore a diachronic study of Tibetan consecration texts is combined here with observations of performances and interviews with performers and religious experts. The observational research was carried out in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal in 1987-1989. (xxi)

Bentor’s methodological endeavor also involves her intentions for translating this particular consecration manual, which has already been discussed. She also numbers segments of the ritual that correspond to each of the four steps in the consecration process in order to trace the evolution of the ritual and its conceptual parallels.

As is readily apparent at this point, Bentor’s book is full of intriguing examinations of the Tibetan consecration ritual as well as analytical explorations and interesting religious motifs. However, there isn’t a strong reaction in the way of criticism. It is clear that Bentor, like Beyer, is incredibly detailed and specific, even more so because she’s examining solely the consecration ritual and related rites. Her text is well-organized and has a very well-developed table of contents. Not only is her Introduction mapped out but the translation is listed with every ritual sequence cataloged appropriately. This is a major improvement on Beyer’s poorly developed table of contents. Likewise, Bentor provides a rich bibliography and appendices full of Tibetan and Western resources utilized or referred to. She also includes the actual Consecration Manual in its original Tibetan pecha format, which is a delight to the studious reader. Her strong reference to the importance of music and the persistence of musical instruments in this Tibetan ritual is also an improvement over Beyer, who scarcely discusses this important Tibetan element. Bentor’s informative expositions between ritual concepts and translations are an incredible benefit to the integrity of her scholarship, as has already been mentioned. Lastly, her dual use of textual and ethnographic material, like Beyer, is one of the book’s strongest attributes.

In the way of negative criticism, very little can be said. In fact, all negative criticism regarding Bentor’s text is minor in contrast to some of the glaring deficiencies found in Beyer. As a matter of annoyance, there were a number of times where Bentor would cite French scholarly material without providing a translation (Bentor 36, 229, 317). This made it clear that the text was not for the casual reader and certainly could not be understood without a modicum of French knowledge. This frustrating lack of comprehension left her arguments and illustrations incomplete. Concerning illustration, Bentor left something to be desired in the manner of pictures, photographs, and other graphic representations. In this manner Beyer excels, as his text is full of illustrated objects, drawn deities, mudra charts, and miscellaneous graphs. While Bentor’s charts of ritual positions were helpful, the content of the text calls for fuller pictorial representation. Considering that she attended the ritual in question, it’s amazing she didn’t provide her own photographs of events. Bentor does make a good argument for the inadequacies of rendering mudras artistically (70), but this does not excuse the otherwise rare use of visual complements. Lastly, it could be argued, as with Beyer, that Bentor lacks a proper conclusion. However, this is not entirely a negative criticism, but is rather an observation. Considering the structure of her text, it seems fitting that Bentor left off a conclusion and rather wrote everything she needed to explain in her detailed introduction.

Yet one criticism could be made toward Bentor overall, and it is both positive and negative. In Consecrations of Images and Stupas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, Bentor offers greater detail and specificity of one particular ritual on consecration, and brings with it a strong context, but it is not as quintessential and foundational as Beyer. What Beyer lacks in so specific a focus he makes up for by being on the ground floor of Tibetan Buddhist ritual studies. Despite her issues with Beyer—and there are a number of them and they are valid points to consider—she nonetheless refers to him for a good amount of important and basic ritual information. What Bentor does hold over Beyer is newness, her book being only eight years old in contrast to Beyer’s thirty year old work. Both authors, however, offer a view from opposite perspectives using surprisingly similar approaches. Both authors also concern themselves with what appears to be the paradoxical nature of Tibetan ritual; paradoxical on a number of levels. This awareness of such paradoxes is important for future explorations into Tibetan ritual practices. Observations such as these aren’t possible without works like Bentor’s, and while Consecration might not be as seminal a work as Beyer’s Cult of Tara, it is regardless an important study on consecration and will prove to be a major resource in the (hopefully) growing study of Tibetan Buddhist ritual.